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A “must read about WHO and social media” it said in one of the tweets I came across on Twitter this morning, linking to an article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization called “Mixed uptake of social media among public health specialists“. And true, it was a must-read for me: 1) I have a degree in Public Health Sciences, 2) I am a former WHO technical officer and 3) my main area of work right now is social media and public health science communication.

I have actually been looking for some WHO thoughts, reactions, comments on the role of social media in public health and to see WHO make use of it. So it is positive to find this article which brings up some interesting perspectives on social media, and adds some words on WHO’s presence on Facebook, Twitter etc.

Having read the article I am a little bit disappointed. It is in my opinion a little bit overly positive when it comes to describing WHO’s engagement in and use of social media (which is perhaps to be expected as it is written by WHO itself). As a former WHO staff member, I did not once during my time with WHO come across any encouragement to use social media. No one told me of the official twitter channel @WHOnews or tought me the value of using social media platforms in meetings, conferences or in linking with large groups of people with common interests. We didn’t use it in any of the small meetings or even larger global forums which I participated in organising. I know of extremely few WHO colleagues who are on for example Twitter, and I feel that I’m meet with a good bunch of scepticism when I try to advocate for looking into how social media could bring some added value to both WHO’s work but also its research. Perhaps it is changing but my impression of WHOs involvement in social media does not quite mirror what I read in this article.

The article, which by the way as all other WHO Bulletin articles have no comments function or provides active links, tries to give an overview of WHOs presence on and use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Despite some mention of the strengths of social media in interacting with people and its two-way nature, my main impression after reading the article, is that to WHO social media is primarily about disseminating health information and counter rumours which can then be corrected. There is nothing wrong with that. Different kinds of social media are an extremely relevant places to disseminate information, identify rumours and emerging health problems etc. But what about entering into dialogue? Why is there no comments function of WHO Bulletin articles? Where is WHO’s blog? Does Director General, Margret Chan share her thoughts and interact with ordinary citizens anywhere? Can I enter into communication via social media with WHO staff working in the same area as me?

The article in the Bulletin does raise the question whether public health should be making more use of social media? And I assume this is also a question as to whether WHO should make more use of social media. I would say yes! Both because whether we like it or not lots with relevance for health is already happening out there and it is essential that WHO is present too. And not only WHO should be there.

Also for internal purposes would I argue that WHO’s use of social media would be useful. WHO financial situation is far from perfect and there a cuts being made everywhere. In staff, in travel, in meeting attendance. Here a thing such as Twitter could actually be an alternative to attending a meeting in real life. Following conferences from the sideline is perhaps not as good as being there in person, but it is a good alternative. Live tweeting by WHO from conferences and meetings would also be useful. Actually, WHO regional office for the Americas, PAHO did make an effort on this at the NCD (non-communicable diseases) UN summit in New York in September this year, through their Twitter account @NDCs_PAHO. But lots more could be done.

To quote the article “For activists, social media can be an inexpensive and quick platform for their campaigns.” Why should that platform be exclusive to activists? Can cheap and quick platforms not also be useful to organisations like WHO, national health authoritise etc? In the US the CDC has caught on to social media, so I guess it just for others to get started. I wonder when the Danish National Board of Health (Sundhedsstyrelsen) will get their first Twitter channel and even a page on Facebook, which to my knowledge does not exist, despite the fact that more than 2.4 million danes (of a total population of 5.3 million) are on Facebook (according to 2009 figures from Danske Interaktive Medier (FDIM). There are lots of potential out there for several organisations, institutions, universities to explore their role in social media when it comes to public health.

All in all its great to see WHO taking up social media and public health and I hope that will help facilitate a useful discussion and further exploring into how these two worlds can interlink and make use of each other. I recommend reading the article which also has great references to blogs on public health matters and other references to other social media initiatives in the field. However, without linking to any of the blogs, Facebook pages etc. and without the ability to comment on the article – which unfortunately makes it a very non-social-media like and instead very WHO-like.